Magic and machines

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To watch Cathy Sprague of Hinsdale work at her quilting machine is to witness magic.

Her hands steady on the machine's black handles, she guides the needle in smooth swoops and curls over the red, black, and white fabric.

She sits close to the 10-foot-long frame holding the quilt taut. Her wheelchair fits snugly under the frame bars. Her mind is easy and full, as free as a child wading a stream.

As Cathy puts it, "Sewing is where I lose myself. It makes me smile."

Every quilt sings her love for the craft and her gratitude for her HQ Sixteen, the long arm quilting machine that lets her do all the work of quilting, despite having multiple sclerosis.

Log cabins and wedding rings, pinwheels and flying geese. No matter the pattern, the layers of cloth are transformed into artworks as lively and generous as her nature. She gives most of them away.

The quilts are infused with the joy of her large, exuberant family, and a profound love for her cherished husband of 44 years, Dwight.

Stitch by stitch, Cathy Sprague is in love with her life.

A few years ago, though, in her early 60s, she didn't own a quilting machine, and her MS began to weaken her legs seriously. She became wheelchair bound.

At that point, Cathy had been living with the disease for more than two decades.

Her independent, cheerful spirit refused to allow the loss of her passion.

"I saved for four years for a long arm quilter," she says.

A long arm, in which the fabric is held taut on a frame while the quilter moves the sewing machine freely over it, can cost as much as $7,000.

She discovered the HQ Sixteen, made by Handi Quilter, at the Vermont Quilt Show about a year ago.

"It looked like everything I dreamed of," she says.

The company CEO, Mark Hyland, happened to be at the show. He promised Cathy that they would modify the machine to meet her needs.

"She is a spunky lady," Hyland remembers. "She has this debilitating disease, and it's not stopping her. We really wanted her to have a machine that would work for her."

The company added a second set of handles and custom fit the frame so that she could reach everything from her wheelchair and load the quilts herself.

The modifications worked. "I can do every part of it," says Cathy. "I've made about 30 quilts on it. And I've invited friends, neighbors, relatives, and even total strangers, more than 80 people, to try it out!"

Her dealings with the company were equally gratifying.

"I even got a hug from Mark," she says. "And when I had a problem early on, my local rep for the company, Rita Glidden, offered to drive two hours from her alterations shop in Middlebury to help me."

She was so pleased with her experience that she entered her story in the company's marketing campaign contest, My HQ Story.

Hers was one of seventeen stories chosen from hundreds of submissions.

For one month in the coming year, Cathy's story and picture will appear in Handi Quilter advertisements in quilting magazines across the country.

The quilters were also invited to a two-day, all expenses paid quilting retreat in October at the company's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"We called each person to give them the news," says Mark Hyland. "Cathy said she would do everything to attend the retreat, but she called us back in tears. It was just impossible for her to get there."

So the company arranged for a master quilter and teacher in upstate New York to come to Cathy's house.

"Her name was Debby Brown, She brought me the retreat package -- thread, batting, quilting DVDs and magazines, scissors, pattern templates, and her own books," she says.

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Brown brought a video camera, as well, and taped Cathy sharing the story of her HQ Sixteen and quilting life. The video is now on YouTube.

"Their generosity was overwhelming. I'm much better at giving than receiving," she admits. "I'm a blessed and lucky person, with a wonderful husband and contented nature, and this machine has added so much to my quality of life."

But the machine, however magical, is only a tool doing its job well.

That job is to help bring Cathy's vivacity to the world.

She learned to sew as a child. One of 16 kids in the Renaud family in Brattleboro, she had to wait for her turn on the household's one treadle sewing machine.

"I had 11 sisters and we all sewed. Mother made our clothes. I dreamed of my own machine, but I didn't get one until I was 20, when I got married," she says. She now owns six.

In the meantime, she grew up in the tumble and excitement of her family.

"We all take after my dad. He was magical, so full of fun," she recalls. "Once he brought home two rolls of tissue paper that the Dunham shoe factory had thrown out, one black and one white."

The family made an enormous balloon shape out the tissue. Her father built a fire in the fireplace, and they filled the balloon with the hot air coming out of the chimney.

"And we let it go and watched it float over Brattleboro. It was so much fun," she says.

The siblings became adults who threw outrageous and goofy birthday parties for each other, pulled silly and loving pranks on each other, and took care of each other through hard times.

Cathy extends this sense of fun and kindness to her friends and acquaintances, too.

"She's a fantastic person," says Rita Glidden. "Her enthusiasm made it great to be part of her dream to create quilts."

Johnny Swing, a local sculptor and welder, has worked with Cathy on several projects, including a rug made of sewn dollar bills.

"She is a delight to collaborate with," he says.

"She's like a 20-something art school friend," says Johnny's wife, Pam, also an artist. "Open and creative and so positive."

Another friend once told Cathy that she wasn't like a person with a serious physical disease -- she was just happy and alive.

"I said, Well, why in the world not?" She breaks into a smile. "Just because I'm sitting in a wheelchair doesn't mean I have to be sitting in my mind!"

Though she literally does sit most of the time, if she's awake, she's probably quilting.

Rita Glidden defines the art as "building memories to pass down to the next generation."

When Cathy comes to her HQ Sixteen each day, she is building beauty and warmth out of fabric, thread, imagination and love.

She is capturing the sweetness of the very moment of her life, and passing it freely on.

The quilting machine is a tool.

Cathy is the magic.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at

About this column ...

In our busy world, only the most sensational people get our attention - the crazy politician, the prize-winning scientist, the earthquake survivor. But we all have stories to tell. They often appear unremarkable, just another bead on a string of days. Yet when we look deeper, the stories of our neighbors, relatives, and friends reveal to us the tenacity and beauty of the human spirit.

This column celebrates our stories - the woman who's baked pies at the local church for 20 years, the young man who builds sculptures from old bikes, the retired guy who still works part time for the town - and we invite you to suggest to us people whose tales we should tell.

Contact Becky Karush at


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